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‘Life’ Loves Aliens, So-so on People

In space, no one can hear Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds scream

(Columbia Pictures)
(Columbia Pictures)

“I can’t lie to you about your chances,” says the duplicitous android Ash (Ian Holm) to the few remaining crew members of the Nostromo late in Ridley Scott’s Alien. He’s referring to the likelihood that they’ll survive their collective close encounter with the extraterrestrial of the title. “But,” he adds, “you have my sympathies.”

Ash’s vicious kiss-off endures due to Holm’s delicious delivery: He’s like a Shakespeare-trained HAL 9000. The line also eloquently sums up the mixture of exploitation and empathy churning through Alien, which rustles up a group of genuinely likable, deep-space roughnecks only to serve them up on a platter to a predator that’s been designed in ruthless tandem by Mother Nature or H.R. Giger to prey upon their all-too-human weaknesses. As a survival-of-the-fittest allegory, Scott’s film is aces, and not just because it finally convincingly finds a way for Ellen Ripley to get the drop on the monster that’s invaded her personal space. If the simplest and best definition of Darwinian evolution is a creature that generates the most copies of itself going forward, Alien is as much a “perfect organism” as its namesake.

The deep-space survival saga Life is a film with as much xenomorph DNA in its bloodstream as possible without violating copyright. The upcoming release of Alien: Covenant will inevitably render Life an also-ran, but it’s still an interestingly flawed movie — an imperfect organism with a strong, steady pulse courtesy of Swedish Chilean director Daniel Espinosa, whose transition from successful Scandinavian productions (2010’s hitman drama Easy Money made a star of Joel Kinnaman) to Hollywood studio assignments — the sturdy Denzel Washington vehicle Safe House — hasn’t eroded his directorial personality.

That’s because he doesn’t have one. Like his fellow European transplant Nimród Antal — who parlayed the good reviews for the Budapest-set crime comedy Kontroll into a gig helming the franchise sequel Predators — Espinosa is a solid craftsman without any pretensions to artistry, the opposite of Scott, who hasn’t met a script that he hasn’t tried to inflate with hot air in over 40 years. Espinosa has a knack for action sequences, and the first half of Life works as a string of impressive set pieces, starting with a five-minute take mapping the interior of the International Space Station, with whirling, fluid camera movements that introduce all six of the film’s characters as they float through its corridors.

The point of this weightless point-of-view shot is to establish the Gravity of the situation, and with all respect to Alfonso Cuarón’s 2014 Oscar winner, Espinosa’s deep-space choreography of bodies and hardware is genuinely impressive even as it’s derivative. The moment when the ISS resident handyman Rory (Ryan Reynolds) remote-controls a massive robotic arm to snatch a woebegone space probe containing a payload of Martian soil samples is beautifully staged in deep focus through a glass porthole reflecting the faces of his crewmates as they look on anxiously from inside, a composition displaying spatial economy, visual imagination, and technical precision.

The decision to push the biggest star in the cast so far back in the frame as his character is taking care of business seems odd, but it also anticipates the ways that Life plays with audience identification and expectation, at least in its superior first half. The casting of alpha males Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal opposite a group of lesser-known international actors establishes a pecking order that the script — by the Deadpool team of Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese — doesn’t necessarily respect even as it keeps the plot twists resolutely on beat. For instance: We know that the cutely undulating little organism coaxed out of the sand by the group’s overambitious biologist (Ariyon Bakare) and lovingly dubbed “Calvin” is going to mutate into something freaky, and that it’s only a matter of time before the station’s spacious confines starting closing in claustrophobically on the characters and the audience.

This is straight out of the Alien playbook, yet there’s a speed and agility to the storytelling that’s mirrored in Calvin’s sleek CGI design. Instead of anthropomorphizing its monster, Life has conceived it as the fleet, faceless embodiment of survival instinct itself, and the contrast between Calvin’s instantaneous, adapt-or-die ingenuity and his victims’ comparatively pokey response times gives the film an unusually ruthless energy.

But it also points to some of what’s wrong with Life, which is that its human players are drab to the point of seeming expendable. The script’s efforts to give them some dimension, like having Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada) Skype with his pregnant wife while she’s in the delivery room, or revealing that captain Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya) loved reading Goodnight Moon as a child in Russia, scan as half-hearted, possibly because Werick and Reese’s specialty is wisecracking nastiness. This is probably why Reynolds seems at home in his role. Gyllenhaal, who’s recently channeled his essential oddness into enjoyably cracked performances in prestige trash like Prisoners and Nightcrawler, is listless to the point of catatonia, while Rebecca Ferguson never quite finds the heart and toughness required by her Ripley-ish role; there’s none of the spark that ignited her breakout turn in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

What the film needs, and palpably lacks, is a wry explainer figure like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, a cutup who could entertainingly contextualize Calvin’s tactics and inject some personality into the proceedings. As it stands, Life plays like a strange experiment to engineer a thriller in which the stakes are almost entirely abstract: The pitched battle aboard the ISS becomes a struggle for the fate of humankind, even as the humans in question aren’t quite engaging enough to make us care. We don’t like their chances. But they also don’t necessarily have our sympathies, either.